for the love of honesty – Martin Aylward wins the debate

radiatorPerhaps the deepest teaching in Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese is the line:

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile every thing we hold dear, think is important, see as a life-and-death issue, a catastrophe, a boring inconvenience, an opportunity for self-righteous blathering remains ineffectual in the face of the world going on.

In the beginning of January, I left for a series of retreats over a three-week period at the Insight Meditation Center and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The teachers at IMS were Christina Feldman and Chris Cullen with two rather amazing up-and-coming teachers. The next week Winnie Nazarko lead the bhavana retreat at at BCBS, which I followed up with a personal retreat, scouring the books in the BCBS library. The days were spent in meditation, reading texts I wouldn’t find anywhere else, and filling my notebook with codes of sutras that I hope I’ll be able to decode four months later.

Through all the talks and conversations, the thread of contemporary mindfulness’ impact on Buddhist practice was very evident. Feldman and Cullen slid past it but what was left unspoken or re-framed spoke loudly to the ambivalence towards the topic. Participants in their retreat (which was advertised as a prerequisite to training as a mindfulness-based instructor/teacher/facilitator) shared that they realized they didn’t have to be a Buddhist teacher to be a (secular?) mindfulness teacher. I can see how they came to that conclusion, encouraged by Feldman’s continuous insistence that she is neither Buddhist nor does she teach Buddhism – fact that caused me some consternation given the theme of her books and the content of her talks, not to mention the very venue in which she was teaching. But let’s leave that to someone else’s article on 10 Mysterious Things in the Buddhist Universe You Will Never Believe! Click here!

I get confused these days. I get confused a lot these in my mind moments. Sometimes it feels like just when I can tell the players with my scorecard, they change the game. So I gave up. In those three weeks of sitting-walking-eating-reading-talking-thinking, I gave up. I decided that the protectors of Buddhist mindfulness and those of secular (where we can now include the new field of “critical mindfulness” propagated by Ed Ng & Ron Purser) live in vastly different worlds with no bridge possible between them.

In a leave-taking conversation with Mu Soeng at the end of my retreats, I shared my grapplings with the sutta on generosity (SN 3.24). The Buddha responds to King Pasenadi Kosala’s question about giving, saying that one should give “where the mind feels confidence” and that is different from giving “where it bears great fruit.” Where what is given can bear great fruit, the Buddha goes on to say, is in the hands of one who has abandoned the five hindrances and is endowed with the five virtues. So I asked, “How can we determine such a person? How can we do that without getting into the judgemental mind state or the preferential mind state, given we are ourselves so clouded?” The answer was simple: We give; and we know the virtuous by the fruit of their actions.

When I bring this advice to bear on the current debates, arguments, sniping, and otherwise skillful and unskillful exchanges, I have to say I see little of good fruit. In some pockets of discussion, there is much to learn and it is supportive. But it’s not enough and the resistance and defensiveness on both sides (are there only two sides to this?) is overwhelming.

But then, this is why we have practiced. And it is for these moments of despair that we practiced deeply. Mary Oliver again in Wild Geese:

Tell me about despair, yours
And I will tell you mine.

There’s despair on both sides, I imagine. And yes, “meanwhile the world goes on.” Meanwhile, Buddhist teachers teach, mindfulness instructors/facilitators/therapists instruct/facilitate/therap. And meanwhile on both sides of the divide they do good, commit atrocities, create loving communities, and foster elite cults.

So the question from a Buddhist perspective might be what can we salvage from this? The answer is that salvaging is not what is called for because nothing has been destroyed. The Dharma is not so vulnerable and thus far has withstood 2600 years of assault. The question from a secular/clinical perspective might be what can derive from all this? The answer is that we need to find our own roots. Ruth Baer has written a wonderful article that points to what we’re missing in the debate.

But more than all that, the question is whether we can or should continue to have (to paraphrase David Whyte from Crossing the Unknown Sea) “a disciplined daily conversation” with each other and ourselves around the value of Buddhist psychology to Western psychology and vice versa. I know the answer for myself. However, I worry that the leading teachers in Buddhism have yet to be less than alarmists and the teachers in contemporary mindfulness shy away from the discussion all together.

So, I’m thrilled when I sit down (with trepidation) to listen to Martin Aylward and hear his very strong, direct, and honest appraisal of what we really should be giving to each other. The gift in this debate – as rancorous and belligerent and self-focused as it gets – is that it calls for us to investigate how we “hang that (doctrinal) purity on Buddhism” and to use these moments to see that when we lock into a “contemptuous” stance to the shift in mindfulness practice towards the secular, it is also our own contempt towards our own practice.

Watch Martin’s amazing talk “For the Love of Mindfulness” and please donate generously to Worldwide Insight that offers such terrific teachings.

the center of everything

Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End?

Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.

It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.

But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white
feet of the trees
whose mouths open.
Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?
Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly, across Asia, then Europe,
until at last, now, they shine
in your own yard?

Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.

When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking
outward, to the mountains so solidly there
in a white-capped ring, or was he looking
to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea
that was also there,
beautiful as a thumb
curved and touching the finger, tenderly,
little love-ring,

 as he whirled,
oh jug of breath,
in the garden of dust? 

Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2004)

practice is what you can’t imagine

CAN YOU IMAGINE?

by Mary Oliver

For example, what the trees do
not only in lightning storms
or the watery dark of a summer’s night
or under the white nets of winter
but now, and now, and now – whenever
we’re not looking. Surely you can’t imagine
they don’t dance, from the root up, wishing
to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting
a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly
more shade – surely you can’t imagine they just
stand there loving every
minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings
of the years slowly and without a sound
thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,
and then only in its own mood, comes
to visit — surely you can’t imagine
patience, and happiness, like that.

from Long Life: Essays and other writings

last night

Last night the geese came back,
slanting fast
from the blossom of the rising moon down
to the black pond.  A muskrat
swimming in the twilight saw them and hurried

to the secret lodges to tell everyone
spring had come.

And so it had.
By morning when I went out
the last of the ice had disappeared, blackbirds
sang on the shores.  Every year
the geese, returning,
do this, I don’t
know how.

Two Kinds of Deliverance
from Dream Work
by
Mary Oliver

of the ordinary

Mindful

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Mary Oliver

what if again

How would you live then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks
flew in circles around your head?  What if
the mockingbird came into the house with you and
became your advisor?  What if
the bees filled your walls with honey and all
you needed to do was ask them and they would fill
the bowl?  What if the brook slid downhill just
past your bedroom window so you could listen
to it slow prayers as you fell asleep?  What if
the stars began to shout their names, or to run this way and that way above the clouds?  What if
you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang
from its painted branches?  What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money?  What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day – who knows how, but they do it – were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?

Mary Oliver

and I’m wondering… what if
the very thing you believed in most,
that you knew in your heart all along
as the most intimate song

came and sat beside you?

Genju

a measure of good

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over

and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, Grove Atlantic Inc., 1986 & New and Selected Poems,

Beacon Press, 1992